According to an actual handbook called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, published in 1942, “A railroad tie is a sleeper. A freight car is a goods wagon. A man who works on the roadbed is a navvy. A streetcar is a tram. Automobile lingo is just as different. A light truck is a lorry. The top of a car is the hood. What we call the hood (of the engine) is a bonnet. The fenders are wings. A wrench is a spanner. Gas is petrol – if there is any.”
Then there is the British manner of speaking, highlighted consistently and repeatedly in this briskly paced theatrical adaptation of the same name (that is, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain). The handbook asserts that, “He [the BBC newsreader] uses the broad a, pronouncing all the a’s in ‘Banana’ like the a in ‘father’ … You will soon get over thinking it is funny.” Here, Colonel Marian Attwood (Matt Sheahan), one of those larger than life characters with plenty of gusto and enthusiasm, a certain amount of which is somewhat misplaced, needs Eugene Schultz (James Millard) to help translate what Major Randolph Gibbons (Dan March) is saying. Gibbons isn’t sorry just because he said he’s ‘sorry’. He’s not cowering in fear just because he started a sentence with ‘I’m afraid’. And so on and so forth.
Quite a few of the punchlines run in this vein, and dependent on one’s disposition on the night, it might get a little tiresome. But otherwise, the extended scenes are in contrast with the tendency in modern plays to veer towards having a large number of short scenes, with the near-constant scene changes that sort of set up requires. This production could, I suppose, fall under the banner of ‘immersive’ theatre, though ultimately it didn’t seem to matter whether any given member of the audience ‘participated’ in proceedings. It’s one of those shows where it’s best to just go with the flow. After all, it’s 1942, and there’s a war on.
Now, having seen the show before perusing its source material (as opposed to the other way around), the play is a remarkably faithful rendering of the handbook. The narrative in both gets slightly ridiculous, albeit from a twenty-first century perspective, and the show technically keeps it clean but subliminally and cleverly gets risqué on occasion, reading between the lines. But where the handbook provides a quaint ‘Table of British Currency’, the intricacies of the pre-decimalised British monetary system, introduced by Henry II, were explained at length in the show by a bumbling Major Gibbons. It’s a rarity to be impressed by a theatre scene that makes things unnecessarily over-complicated, but this show pulls it off well.
Occasionally, the jokes are relevant to the current political situation in today’s America and today’s Britain. Whether this is deliberate I cannot say – personally, I don’t think there was any concerted effort to make the play relevant to 2017, and as ever with comedies, audience reactions to various punchlines will differ from performance to performance. Worthy of mention is a long scene meant to demonstrate how American soldiers (or indeed anybody) should apparently ‘behave’ in a British pub. Initially, I thought the scene was a tad overdramatic, but on second thoughts, after a few drinks, anything is possible.
How is ‘Thames’ pronounced? Is ‘dinner’ in the middle of the day, or in the evening? If the former, shouldn’t it really be ‘lunch’? On and on the show proceeds, faster and faster, increasingly over-the-top but gloriously hilarious. A witty and whimsical production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
It’s 1942 and a horde of Yankee servicemen have just arrived in England – where the locals speak a strange dialect, boil all their food, and talk endlessly about the weather…
Inspired by the World War Two pamphlet given to GIs on their way to Blighty, Instructions For American Servicemen in Britain journeys back to the British home front, where two American officers have been charged with explaining British life to their recently arrived compatriots. The problem is, they’ve only just arrived themselves. Will the plucky team succeed in explaining the quirks and customs of everyday British life? Or will Hitler’s propaganda split the allies asunder? The future of the free world hangs in the balance.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a joyous, affectionate and contagiously silly comedy of British manners. The production has sold out two UK tours over the past couple of years, receiving standing ovations and rave reviews along the way.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain
Created by Dan March, James Millard, Matt Sheahan and John Walton
Performed by Dan March, James Millard and Matt Sheahan
Directed by John Walton
Set and Costume by Martin Thomas
Sound by Jon McLeod
Jermyn Street Theatre
July 3 – July 29 2017
Jermyn Street Theatre
16b Jermyn Street,
London, SW1Y 6ST